THE REHTORIC is surely familiar enough. All candidates assure us with great earnestness, especially in election years, that they have a deep faith in "the basic goodness and wisdom of the American People." The incumbent's opponent says that America is in trouble "not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed." So? So he'll return government to the people."
President Carter did scold us last July for our spiritual bankruptcy, but that was an unusual case -- by then the country was such a botch it almost seemed plausible to blame everybody. And Mr. Carter did hasten to assure us that we're still basically good. If he didn't throw us that sop, then even The Baltimore Sun and New York Post, which have endorsed him, might recognize as bilge his pledge to give us "a government as good as its people."
Are the candidates and their flack frauds or are they such blubberheads they actually believe the fatuities they spout? I am convinced of one thing, based on vast evidence, and that is that if they believe their twaddle about the wisdom and goodness of the people, then they are even worse dubs that is generally assumed.
The great majority of studies I found buttressed these words from an article by Peter Natchez and Irwin Rupp in a 1968 issue of Public Policy; "The vast majority of the electorate . . . are only peripherally concerned with issues, if indeed they are aware of them at all. Issues require information, and information, according to the University of Michigan Survey Research Center, is one thing the electorate does not possess."
That is seldom mentioned in high-school civics books, yet it characterizes not only the American public but all mass publics.
Here are a few findings I gleaned from "The American Party System and the American People" (1963), by Fred Greenstein: Only about half of adult Americans know how many senators their state sends to Washington; only about half know how long a U.S. representative's term is; only about half know "whether all United States senators come up for reelection this fall"; 60 percent don't know how many justices "are normally on the Supreme Court"; 77 percent know nothing at all about the Bill of Rights. Dan Nimmo, in his 1974 book, "Popular Images of Politics," cites the finding, among many others, that 80 percent of us can't name the three branches of the federal government. In a 1964 article, Philip Converse wrote that "70 percent is a good estimate of the proportion of the public that does not know which party controls Congress."
"The public has little information on which candidates take what position during an election," conclude Sidney Verba and Norman Nie in their 1974 book, "Participation in America." "In fact, they know almost nothing about candidates." If they are congressional candidates most of the people have not even heard of them.
I could go on, but will forbear for the sake of mercy and because I'm aware of the hazards of using statistics. Here and there I even found an analyst who held that the public is more rational and informed than this. But not many, and they were overwhelmed by both the quantity and quality of the evidence to the contrary. Let us have no more talk of "power to the people."
In fact, the data, gloomy as it is, paints the picture too flatteringly. As William Flanigan and Nancy Zingale point out in "The political Behavior of the American Electorate" (1979), the form of questioning used in voter-behavior studies "seriously exaggerates the number of people who hold views on political issues. People can easily say 'agree' or 'disagree' in response to a position, even if they know nothing at all about the topic."
A 1980 issue of Public Opinion carries an illustration of that point. Four Cincinnati University professors asked 467 people the following: "Some people say the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?" A third of those asked "offered definite opinions about it" -- yet no such act exists.
To me anyway, such findings are far more interesting than how many of us agree or disagree with something. I couldn't care less, for example, about how many of us support or oppose SALT II, when a recent CBS-New York Times survey found that 77 percent of us can't even name the two countries involved.
That politicians feed bosh to boobs is not news, not even to the press, though editorial pages still print acres of somber analyses of the "political fallout" that is supposed to result from some policy stance of candidate Blank. I can't explore here why people vote as they do, beyond making it clear that it has almost nothing to do with issues. The candidates, or at any rate their flacks, can hardly be expected not to notice this: the whole point of their gigantic public-relations expenditures is to exploit it. Churchill may have refused "to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one's pulse and taking one's temperature," but today even political science professors know that few American politicians have so refused. If any ever did it's a safe bet their reward was oblivion.
Today there are more boobs than ever to pander to. Many, indeed, are sliding toward illiteracy -- no longer a deterrent, as everyone knows, to getting a degree from schools run more and more by global-village idiots. So expect the bosh to be heaved in ever more massive boluses, world without end.
As for universal personhood suffrage, it is so entrenched it would be idle to suggest modifications -- unless, perhaps, the suggestions were for even further extension. How many loud jeers accompanied passage of the 18-year-old vote nine years ago? The opposition was timorous and easily trounced. So I am now pushing the 18-month-old vote, arguing that those old enough to bite are old enough to vote.
True, there are those who refuse to march in the universal-suffrage parade. The general electorate itself seems to have its reservations. An article by Herbert McClosky in the June 1964 American Political Science Review cites some findings on this, such as: 61.1 percent of the people agree that "few people really know what is in their own best interest in the long run"; 62.3 percent agree that "issues and arguments are beyond the understanding of most voters"; 47.8 percent agree that "most people don't have enough sense to pick their leaders wisely", and, perhaps most significant, only 47.6 percent agree that "people ought to be allowed to vote even if they can't do so intelligently." Professor McClosky has just finished more research in this area, and he told me that there has been no significant change in these attitudes over the years, or in the average voter's level of information.
It's clear, then, that many of us do seem to have an inkling of our ignorance, and since 1968 more and more of us have chosen not to make a display of that ignorance at the polls. Barely half of those eligible to vote chose to do so in 1976, and the 1978 turnout was the lowest since World War II.
In fact we lead all democracies in not voting. In itself, this is nothing to hang our heads about. After all, maybe it's because we at least know we can't vote intelligently. If awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, maybe we should be urging others to follow our lead. Or, to throw out another possibility, are many of us like Martin Peretz of The New Republic? He said he has made "a conscientious decision to refuse the junk our political system puts before us."
Either reason would, to my mind, be commendable. Unfortunately neither likely explains much. Some of the turnouts in the primaries suggest there could be more voting than in recent years. That is by no means certain, but it is well worth pondering. Can it be that a born-again peanut farmer and the star of "Bedtime for Bonzo" have enthralled us? At the least, they seem to have profited is some cases from the even greater disgust aroused by their opponents.
Wonderful. To mark an X or pull a lever for such sages is a moral obligation? Then so is watching "The Gong Show." We are duty-bound as "responsible citizens" to make blind choices between pieces of junk? Go tell it to Dick Tuck. Among the many things he has been credited with is a quote that should earn him immortality, or at least an entry in the forthcoming 15th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: "The people have spoken -- the bastards."
Alexander Pope, I think, would love it. He would see in it that brevity Shakespeare said was the soul of wit. He would be flattered to see a cross-reference to Tuck after his own. The people's voice is odd, It, and it is not, the voice of God.